Is it wrong in principle to object to the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum? There are some good arguments why the result should be implemented, but the Prime Minister today initially planned to make the worst possible argument for it – an argument which suggested hypocrisy of her colleagues, and dishonesty by herself.
Her planned speech (which was amended after criticism circulated online) referred to the 1997 Welsh referendum on devolution, which led to Welsh voters voting in favour of the proposed Welsh assembly by just 50%, on a turnout of about 50%. The Prime Minister originally intended to claim that despite this narrow vote “the result was accepted by both sides and the popular legitimacy of that institution has never seriously been questioned.”
This would be a good argument – if it were true. In fact, both parts of it are false. As the journalist Stephen Bush pointed out, in the 2005 election, the Conservative party manifesto argued for a referendum on whether the Welsh assembly should be retained, despite the previous vote in favour. So the legitimacy of that institution was seriously questioned, by the Conservative party, at a time when the Prime Minister and many Brexiteers were Conservative MPs. And they called for the very thing – a further referendum – which they reject as an outrageous idea when it comes to Brexit, and are very reluctant to accept as regards Scottish independence.
However, one can distinguish between trying to reverse a referendum result after implementing it – as in the 2005 election – and reversing it even before it had been implemented, as critics of Brexit seek to do today. But this distinction doesn’t help the Prime Minister’s argument – because contrary to what she had planned to say in her speech, her party did not accept the result of the 1997 Welsh referendum, even before it was implemented.
Indeed, Hansard (the record of parliamentary debates) indicates the strength of Conservative party opposition to implementing that referendum result. Well-known Brexiter Owen Paterson objected to implementing a result based on a “tiddly widdly majority”. He agreed with the critical views of the Welsh CBI – whereas he has little time for the views of the CBI on Brexit today.
Similarly, Brexiter Bernard Jenkin claimed that the Welsh referendum result did not have “broad and informed consent” and would give rise to “many years of argument”. Ultimately, Paterson and Jenkin then voted against the Bill to implement the referendum result – as did Brexiteers David Davis, Liam Fox, Iain Duncan Smith, John Redwood, Michael Fabricant – and Theresa May.
While some supporters of Brexit describe their opponents as “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people”, it seems that Brexiteers, and the Prime Minister herself, have form on objecting to the implementation of referendum results where the margin of victory was small. Likewise, they have a record of campaigning for another referendum despite the results of a previous plebiscite. The punchline is that their hypocrisy might have remained more obscure had it not been for the Prime Minister’s initial plan to bring it to wider public attention, via the novel method of making false statements about it in her own speech.